Sunday Lighthouse Tours With More Artifacts On Display

Published by admin at 11:23 AM under

Guided Sunday tours of Sea Girt Lighthouse are under way with more historic artifacts on display that capture the keepers, Coasties and important moments in the compelling story of the 118-year-old landmark.

Added to the displays are numerous historic photographs and documents uncovered by the lighthouse historian during a year of researching the book recently published by The History Press and available at the lighthouse.

challenge_2013 Tours are conducted Sundays, 2-4 p.m., except holiday weekends, by knowledgeable and friendly docents, who take visitors through every room from the keeper’s office, through the living quarters and up to the top of the tower of the lighthouse. Admission is free. Donations are appreciated.

Please note: There will be no tours on May 11 (Mother’s Day), May 25 (Memorial Day weekend), June 15 (Father’s Day), July 6 (Independence Day weekend), August 31 (Labor Day weekend) and October 12 (Columbus Day weekend).

Lighthouse of Distinction

Sea Girt Lighthouse was built in 1896 to illuminate a “dark space” encountered by mariners in storms midway between Navesink Twin Lights and Barnegat Lighthouse. Sea Girt, equipped with a 4th order Fresnel lens, flashed its first beacon December 10, 1896. It could be seen for up to 15 miles.

The lighthouse also served as identifier and warning of Sea Girt Inlet immediately to the north that mariners in the days of sail often mistook for the deeper Squan Inlet that provided a safe harbor in storms which Sea Girt Inlet being so shallow did not.

A lighthouse of distinction, Sea Girt was the first land-based station in the world equipped with a radio fog beacon transmitter, activated in 1921, that enabled mariners to navigate in fog by plotting the signals from Sea Girt, and transmitters aboard Ambrose Lightship and Fire Island Lightship.

Discoveries on Display

But, photos uncovered in the National Archives and now exhibited reveal the lighthouse in its early years was threatened by beach erosion from ocean storms and Sea Girt Inlet overflowing its banks. To protect the lighthouse, the Army Corps of Engineers in 1915 installed 30-foot long, interlocking steel plates, pounded into the ground, along the property line. In 1938 Wreck Pond was dammed. The inlet eventually dried up.

Added to the keeper exhibits are the wedding portrait of the second and third keepers Abram and Harriet Yates and a photo of the last keeper George Thomas at his previous posting with his wife Minnie and theirs daughters Alice and Lucy.

There are also candid photos now on display showing keepers and their families in relaxed moments, taking a break from lighthouse activities. One shows Abram and Harriet Yates on the porch, while off by herself at the other end of the porch stands an independent young Lizzie Yates.

The children of keepers pitched in and learned a lot about lighthouse operations and the new technologies, as captured in the photo of Lucy Thomas with her father, George, at a Marconi wireless station on Long Island while he was keeper at Fire Island Lighthouse in World War I.

And now in the binders of Lighthouse Service documents is George’s 1936 application to take a day’s leave from Sea Girt Lighthouse in early April to visit family in Brooklyn. He nominated as his replacement 20-year-old Alice, who was approved “with understanding substitute is to be furnished at your own expense.”

bm1_thurlow_jester Newly added to the Coast Guard display is a photo of the first Coast Guardsman ever assigned to Sea Girt Lighthouse, Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Thurlow E. Jester, a 27-year-old Virginian, who assumed command November 30, 1940, after civilian keeper Thomas retired to Ocean Grove.

During World War II, the beacon at Sea Girt Lighthouse was extinguished and removed, so as not to give direction to enemy ships, which were known to be in local waters. Coast Guardsmen stood watch in the tower and patrolled the beaches.

Uncovered Documents

065_alternative_a Added to the lighthouse binders available for viewing by visitors, are pages from the Sea Girt war logs, photocopied at the National Archives, including these significant developments:

  • 12:40 a.m., February 27, 1942: “Men on watch reported ship’s fire seven miles east of station.” The fire was aboard the Standard Oil tanker R.P. Resor, torpedoed shortly before midnight. Only two crewmen survived.

· 11:00 a.m., July 22, 1942: “Received orders from the commanding officer to discontinue the operation of the light.”

· 4 p.m. to mid., September 23, 1944: “Tested beacon light and found it to be in good operating condition.” With the end of war in sight, the blackout of U.S. light stations was lifted. At Sea Girt, the Fresnel lens was not re-installed. Instead an automatic beacon had been installed atop the lighthouse tower and activated soon thereafter.

With war’s end and the automatic beacon in place, the lighthouse no longer needed to be staffed.

Bygone Sea Girt Captured in Historic Photos

In addition to artifacts from the Lighthouse Service and Coast Guard eras, as well as the 1934 Morro Castle ship fire and rescue, the lighthouse collection has a substantial display of photos and documents of bygone Sea Girt, a once sleepy shore community of unpaved streets.

bygone_sg_goveror_cottage_postcard Things happened in Sea Girt and its population swelled in summertime. At the south end of town National Guard troops trained at the summer encampment which began in 1885. Locals and vacationers would go to the camp to watch troops parade and take artillery practice, shooting cannon balls into the ocean.

The campground was also the location of the Governor’s Summer Cottage, which was actually a mansion and had been the New Jersey exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The building was a replica of the Ford Mansion in Morristown where General Washington made his Revolutionary headquarters during the winter of 1779-80. After the World’s Fair, the building was disassembled, shipped by train to the National Guard Camp and rebuilt. It became known as the Little White House. Governor Woodrow Wilson was vacationing there in 1912 when he learned he had gotten the Democrat party’s presidential nomination.

Sea Girt was also for many years a busy transportation hub. The train station was built in 1895, a year before the lighthouse. For decades there was mainline service to and from New York City. Sea Girt was also a junction for a western spur line on which ran passenger trains to and from Philadelphia by way of Trenton and Freehold and freight trains of the Freehold & Jamesburg Agricultural Railroad with crops from western New Jersey farms. And Coast Cities Railway Co. operated trolleys from Long Branch to Sea Girt.

For alternative transportation, locals could be seen riding their horses along the sandy local roads and beaches from the DuBois Stables on Chicago Boulevard, west of Route 71. An annual end-of-summer festival, known as Big Sea Day, or Salt Water Day, brought revelers to the beach in their horse-drawn buggies in a celebration that originated with the Lenni Lenape Indians.

While the train station remains, and is now the borough library, trains have not stopped there since the mid-1970s. The trolley’s gone as is the DuBois Stables. The Little White House was demolished in 1971. While Big Sea Day is still observed in a few shore towns, nobody rides horse-drawn buggies on the beach. Yet these and other traditions and landmarks are vividly captured in the display of historic photos and postcards on the second-floor.

Volunteers Sought

The Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee, the all-volunteer organization responsible for maintaining and operating the historic landmark and preserving its history, invites newcomers to join the fun, accept the challenge and experience the satisfaction of helping to preserve local history by giving tours.

SGL_1925_CIRCA You don’t need to be an historian, just enthusiastic. You’d be joined on any given Sunday by several other volunteers. Each guide is assigned a room or two, such as the keeper’s office, the parlor or the lantern room. As visitors enter a room, the guide greets them, discusses the history of the room and points out the artifacts on display.

Pick your own room where you will be welcoming and chatting with people from down the block, across America and around the world. There’s a script for quick reference. But after giving a tour or two, most guides know the lighthouse story so well they don’t need the script.

Volunteers of any age are welcome, from students to retirees. For students, the experience can fulfill community service requirements and makes for an impressive activity on college applications.

During Sunday tours, volunteers are also needed to staff the merchandise desk, where lighthouse scale models, prints, postcards, caps, shirts and other souvenirs are sold.

All sales proceeds and donations go to maintaining and operating the lighthouse.

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Sea Girt Lighthouse Book Just Published

Published by admin at 7:12 AM under

Sea Girt Lighthouse: The Community Beacon, the definitive history of the shore landmark, has just been SGL_BOOK_FRONT_COVER published by The History Press. The lively narrative captures the engaging stories of the keepers and Coast Guardsmen who operated the important station and the preservationists who saved it for all to enjoy.

The book breaks new ground and expands the history of the lighthouse that has for more than a century not just survived but actually thrived and met the challenges of changing missions through the ingenuity, determination and hard work of the many dedicated people who have served there.

Bill Dunn, a Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee trustee and the lighthouse historian, spent more than a year researching and writing the book and gathering historic photos. “This was an exciting assignment and a labor of love,” he said, noting his association with the lighthouse goes back to his childhood when it was the recreation center. Fellow trustees suggested the project to Bill, who has written several previous books and was a reporter at The Detroit News and later USA Today.

010 Research for the book began in the lighthouse archives, which contains historic documents and artifacts gathered by the founding trustees and others, as well as many hundreds of pages of official documents and correspondence left behind by the U.S. Lighthouse Service and the Coast Guard related to Sea Girt operations. He also went to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where he read the light station journals of the keepers and the Coast Guard war logs.

Dan Herzog, an SGLCC member who is experienced in genealogical research from having done his own family tree, assisted, exploring census and other genealogical records of Sea Girt’s keepers. He uncovered important facts and leads that were pursued. Several descendants of keepers and Coasties were identified and contacted for photos and details of their forebears while at Sea Girt Light.

Colorful Keepers

“Sea Girt Lighthouse had some interesting and colorful characters assigned here as keepers,” Bill noted. Their 030 ranks included a Civil War veteran who rose to junior lieutenant in the Union Army but was known as “the major” in the Lighthouse Service, the son of a light keeper, a courageous woman who took charge under difficult circumstances, an inventor who spent the previous three decades at sea on lightships, and a 37-year-old keeper who started his tour by vowing to outlast his predecessors, two of whom died on the job. And he did by a wide margin, retiring at age 52, and going on to have a second career in real estate.

Then there was the last keeper at Sea Girt, who previously was a locomotive engineer and survived a derailment, who proved resourceful in emergencies including the time at Fire Island Light Station when he helped rescue aviators whose plane crashed into South Bay. He would win a commendation then and later in his years at Sea Girt.

“While a diverse group, Sea Girt’s keepers shared a sense of commitment to keeping the light shining bright. They well knew that the lives of mariners and their passengers depended on the keepers’ faithful execution of duties,” observed Bill. And the keepers were helped by their families. Everyone pitched in, including the 20-year-old daughter of Sea Girt’s last keeper, who substituted for her dad for 24 hours while he was away from the station. That young lady would go on to a distinguished career as an Army nurse in World War II.

037During the war, the U.S. Coast Guard was in charge of all U.S. lighthouses, including Sea Girt. Instead of a keeper and family occupying and operating Sea Girt Lighthouse, there were as many as two dozen Coast Guardsmen posted there, conducting beach patrols and standing watch in the tower, on the alert for enemy ships which were known to be in local waters.

Compelling Photos

The 192-page book is illustrated with 110 photos, some never before published, many of them compelling and dramatic. Included are photos of the keepers and their families, the Coast Guardsmen, and the lighthouse down through the years, which changed in appearance with the addition of new technology and modifications to the building. There are starling photos from 1915 when the lighthouse was threatened by beach erosion that prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take remedial action to save it.

Among the photos are 25 in color. Contemporary photos, including candid shots of lighthouse tours, parties and special events, like the first-ever050 night climb and the annual Lighthouse Challenge that attract people to the lighthouse from around the world, were taken by several local photographers. The color cover photos are by Robert S. Varcoe, an SGLCC trustee.

Lighting the Dark Space

Sea Girt Lighthouse is dwarfed by its lighthouse neighbors. To the north are America’s oldest lighthouse, Sandy Hook, built in 1764, which survived bombardment in the American Revolution, and the brownstone fortress of Navesink Twin Lights, built in 1862, as a replacement to the original station there.

To the south is Barnegat Lighthouse, built in 1857, to replace two earlier Barnegat lights undermined by storms and beach erosion, common threats to lighthouses everywhere, as documented in Sea Girt Lighthouse: The Community Beacon.

Despite Sea Girt Light’s comparatively small size, only 42 steps from the keeper’s office to the lantern room at the top, its role was vital. It was built in 1896 to illuminate what was described as a “dark space” that mariners in the days of sail often encountered, especially in bad weather, around the midpoint between Twin Lights and Barnegat when they could see neither beacon.

080 Sea Girt, equipped with a 4th order Fresnel lens, flashed its first beacon December 10, 1896, projecting its light 15 miles to sea, more than enough distance to guide mariners to the next light, along the shipping lanes, where shifting sandbars, hidden rocks, and quickly changing depths make the passage challenging.

Just as mariners needed the light to navigate New Jersey’s surprisingly treacherous waters, the lighthouse itself was being threatened by beach erosion, almost from the beginning, caused by ocean storms and Sea Girt Inlet and Wreck Pond overflowing their banks in the worst hurricanes and Nor’easters. A wooden bulkhead was installed, which proved inadequate. Then in 1915, 30-foot-long interlocking steel plates were pounded in the ground along the property line. Other projects followed which in combination stabilized the property and protected the foundation.

First in Technology

In 1921 Sea Girt became the first land-based station equipped with a radio fog transmitter. Transmitters were also installed at Fire Island Lightship and Ambrose Lightship, each sending out a distinct signal, which enabled vessels approaching or leaving New York to fix their position in fog by cross bearing. “These were the first successful radiobeacons in the world,” wrote U.S. Lighthouse Commissioner George Putnam in his book Radiobeacons and Radiobeacon Navigation.

Despite its varied contributions, Sea Girt was put under review in 1932, after a report by a committee of the American Steamship Owners Association concluded the station could be discontinued without serious detriment to navigation. The assessment was rejected, however, at the highest levels of the Lighthouse Service after District Lighthouse Superintendent J.T. Yates asserted: “Sea Girt Light is the only light on the Jersey coast between Highlands and Barnegat. … This light is extremely important.”

Two years later, the importance of the lighthouse beacon as a guiding light and source of hope was demonstrated yet again. While Instructions To Employees of the United States Lighthouse Service states beacons were to be extinguished at sunrise, it also ordered keepers to “give or summon aid to vessels in distress, whether public or private, and to assist in saving life and property from perils of the sea whenever it is practicable to do so.”

On September 8, 1934, as an out-of-control fire raced through the cruise ship Morro Castle several miles offshore, the acting captain gave the order to abandon ship. The keeper then at Sea Girt is believes to have kept the beacon flashing past the sunrise shutdown to provide a guiding beacon to rescue ships and to give people overboard direction and hope. One survivor credits the lighthouse beacon with saving her life by encouraging her to fight on.

Lighthouse Disguised

During World War II, America’s lighthouses were under Coast Guard command. And the order came down to extinguish the beacons, so as not to give navigational aid to enemy ships, which were in local waters.

At Sea Girt, the Fresnel lens was extinguished and removed. Coasties stood watch in the lantern room around the clock and patrolled the beach from sunset to sunrise. Troop strength increased rapidly after the Standard Oil tanker R.P. Resor was torpedoed by a German U-boat February 26, 1942 some 7 miles off Sea Girt, an explosion recorded in the Sea Girt war log.

While U.S. lighthouses extinguished or dimmed their lights, Allied ships were able to navigate by LORAN (long-range navigation) and RACON (radar  beacon), systems developed by the Allies. A rare World War II photo of Sea Girt shows an antenna strung between two poles taller than the lighthouse. The installation is believed to have been a RACON transponder. When hit with a radar beam from a ship, a RACON transponder sends back a distinct signal of dots and dashes that shows up on the ship’s radar screen that can be plotted to fix the ship’s position.

By October 1942, there were 21 Coast Guardsmen at Sea Girt Lighthouse. The number rose to 28 by June 1943. Four soldiers arrived in August on temporary assignment. They camped on the lawn. The troops patrolled the one-mile stretch from Pier Beach to the north edge of the Army Camp. Coast Guard stations in towns north and south patrolled their local beaches. National Guardsmen patrolled the beach in front of Camp Sea Girt.

By late fall 1943, the number of troops at Sea Girt Lighthouse began to decline, as the tide of war shifted in the favor of the Allies, who by then controlled the North Atlantic. Some of the men at Sea Girt were reassigned to sea duty or other stations. In September 1944, the blackout order was lifted. An automatic light was activated atop the lighthouse tower.

Community Beacon

When the war was over, the building was closed and left empty, except for a brief period in 1954 when Coasties oversaw the building of a taller metal truss tower on the northeast corner of the property, to which the automatic light was moved and operated until 1977 when it was shut off and the truss tower dismantled.

Sea Girt Borough bought the lighthouse in 1956 and used it for the recreation program and as the community center. And the parlor became the   town library. Since 1981, the volunteers of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee have been responsible for maintaining and operating the lighthouse, keeping it alive with community activity and preserving its history through tours, special events and now the book.

A memorial tower light was installed in 1983, not as a navigational aid, but rather to recreate for visitors and passersby the bygone atmosphere when the tower was illuminated and projected a guiding beacon to mariners. It continues to shine, a beacon to the community and all who visit.

The book concludes with a room-by-room tour from the keeper’s office through the living quarters and on up to the top of the tower. There are photos of many of the rare artifacts on display, including a 1903 keeper’s logbook, a keeper’s lantern used before the living quarters were electrified in 1932, signal lamps, a 4th order Fresnel lens (not the original lens, but the same size), and official communiques from the Lighthouse Service superintendent and the Coast Guard commandant.

“Sea Girt Lighthouse, a lighthouse of distinction with a rich history here thoroughly explored, is a beloved landmark and the symbol of Sea Girt,” notes Virginia Zientek, president of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee.

How to Get The Book

“Your purchase of the book will help maintain this treasure and affirm your commitment to preserving its history,” she adds. All royalties from the sale of the book go to maintenance and operation of the lighthouse.

Copies are available for purchase, $21.99 each, at the lighthouse during Sunday tours, which resume April 27. To order by mail, please send a check for $26.99 for purchase and handling, to Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee, P.O. Box 83, Sea Girt, NJ 08750. The book can also be purchased from the publisher’s website (https://historypress.net) or at online bookshops such as Amazon.com.

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